The appellant, James Stafford, appeals from his convictions and sentences for the felony murder of Jami Carter, for the aggravated assault of Michael Barnett, and for driving with an unlawful blood-alcohol level. 1
On appeal, Stafford contends, among other things, that the evidence is insufficient to support his conviction for felony murder, and that he received ineffective assistance of counsel. Finding no merit to these, as well as the remainder of, Stafford's contentions, we affirm his convictions.
The evidence would have authorized a rational trier of fact to find that on the night of April 15-16, 1998, Stafford saw Jami Carter driving in her car with Michael Barnett, and mistakenly thought that Carter was a girl named Kelly Gervin. Stafford was angry with Gervin because she had left Stafford earlier in the evening to be with her boyfriend. When Stafford saw Carter, he attempted to stop her car, and began screaming at her. Carter drove away from Stafford, but Stafford began chasing Carter around Chatham County in a high-speed chase that sometimes exceeded 100 miles per hour. Stafford attempted to run Carter's car off the road on several occasions, and crashed into Carter's car several times. Carter eventually lost control of her car and crashed into a guardrail. Carter was thrown from the car onto the highway, and there was evidence that Stafford drove over the victim, and continued driving. Carter died as a result of her injuries. Barnett also received injuries in the crash, but survived. Shortly after the incident, Stafford was arrested by police. Stafford was unsteady on his feet, had slurred speech, and the smell of alcohol on his breath. Blood-alcohol tests revealed that Stafford had a blood-alcohol level of between .141 and .149.
Stafford was convicted and sentenced for the felony murder of Carter (with the aggravated assault of Carter serving as the underlying felony), for the aggravated assault of Barnett, and for driving with an unlawful blood-alcohol level. After his conviction, Stafford obtained new counsel, and filed a motion for new trial contending that he had received ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The trial court denied the motion, and Stafford has now filed this appeal.
1. Contrary to Stafford's contention, we conclude that a rational trier of fact could have found Stafford guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted beyond a reasonable doubt. 2
2. In several enumerations of error, Stafford contends that, in denying his motion for new trial, the trial court erred in ruling against his claim that he received ineffective assistance of trial counsel. However, after examining the record, we conclude that there is no merit to Stafford's ineffective assistance claim. 3
4. In his third enumeration of error, Stafford contends that the trial court erred in denying the motion for mistrial that he made during the questioning of Juror 28. During voir dire, Juror 28 stated that he was part of the rescue unit that responded to the scene of the crime in this case. When asked whether being at the scene would affect his ability to be fair and impartial, he responded that "It'd be kinda hard with what I've seen so far." Defense counsel then moved for a mistrial and "a fresh panel," contending that the juror's remark had tainted the remainder of the panel. Defense counsel, however, did not ask for curative instructions or seek to question the other jurors to determine whether they had been influenced by this remark. The trial court denied defense counsel's motion. Based upon these circumstances, we cannot conclude that the jury panel was tainted by Juror 28's remark, and we therefore hold that the trial court did not err in denying Stafford's motion. 5
5. Because defense counsel stated on the record that Stafford did not want the trial court to charge on vehicular homicide, Stafford's contention on appeal that the trial court erred in failing to give such a charge is without merit. 6
6. In his tenth enumeration of error, Stafford contends that he was improperly convicted of felony murder and the underlying felony that supported the felony murder conviction. Although the jury found Stafford guilty of felony murder and the underlying felony of aggravated assault, the trial court properly merged the underlying felony into the felony murder conviction, and sentenced Stafford only for felony murder. 7
Accordingly, this enumeration of error is without merit.
7. In his eleventh enumeration of error, Stafford contends that the trial court erred in denying the motion for mistrial that he made after a police officer allegedly improperly placed his character in issue. The motion for mistrial arose during Stafford's cross-examination of a police officer who was involved in pursuing the high-speed chase instigated by Stafford. Defense counsel asked the officer if he knew anything about Stafford's Ford Escort, and the officer responded that he did. Defense counsel then asked the officer, "how fast will that car go? That particular car." The officer responded that "[t]hat particular car will do in excess of 100 miles an hour." This response prompted defense counsel to ask the officer if he had "been in that car and done 100 miles an hour?" The officer responded that "I have pursued that car on a prior occasion." After this response, Stafford moved for a mistrial, contending that the response improperly placed his character in issue. The trial court denied the motion for mistrial, but instructed the jury to disregard the officer's last response. Even assuming that the officer's response was not responsive to defense counsel's question, we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion for mistrial, as it is not apparent that a mistrial is necessary to preserve Stafford's right to a fair trial. 8
Spencer Lawton, Jr., District Attorney, Jerome M. Rothschild, Assistant District Attorney, Thurbert E. Baker, Attorney General, Paula K. Smith, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Jeanne K. Strickland, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.